Burnsville council majority against private fiber leases 

The Burnsville City Council’s routine annual review of board and committee assignments led to the ouster Tuesday of Council Member Dan Gustafson from Dakota County’s 10-city broadband board.

A 3-2 council majority agreed to replace Gustafson with Council Member Cara Schulz as the council’s representative to the Dakota Broadband Board.

Schulz requested the assignment. Gustafson asked to keep it, saying he’s built expertise and influence in his two years on the board and was poised to take over as chair in 2021 after a recent board election.

Council members Dan Kealey and Vince Workman sided with Schulz.

The replacement reflects a long-running policy dispute on the council over the direction of a board formed in 2017 to efficiently manage cities’ individual fiber networks and support broadband expansion.

Schulz, Kealey and Workman oppose using excess capacity on the publicly owned “I-net” linking government buildings and utilities as a “C-net” that private Internet service providers can lease.

“Through these partnerships, additional businesses and residents throughout Dakota County can be served, and communities can pursue future economic development opportunities,” the board says on its website.

Burnsville “may be headed off the DBB” because the board is pursuing the C-net, Kealey said during Tuesday’s council meeting. The council’s majority position is “quite different from what it might have been five years ago or four years ago.”

Gustafson took his replacement as an affront.

“I think it’s wrong,” he told colleagues. “But you’re going to do what you’re going to do. It sounds like it was pre-decided before tonight anyhow.”

Schulz said she wanted the assignment because Burnsville is “going in a different direction on this board.” A shakeup in council assignments to local and regional bodies is nothing new, she said.

“I have swapped almost every one of my commissions every year I have been on” the council, said Schulz, who began her second four-year term Tuesday. “And I have been on board with people swapping out their commissions more often. That is something I have been consistent with every year.”

In a post-meeting interview, Gustafson said the council originally joined the board — an initiative of the county’s Community Development Agency — knowing that part of its mission was economic development through access to high-speed broadband not uniformly available throughout the county.

C-net lease availability could attract new Internet and content providers to serve residents and businesses and foster competition, Gustafson said.

“The three of them don’t want that to happen,” he said. “They want to keep the incumbents in place.”

The city would collect a lease fee and the community would get better service, he said.

In a post-meeting interview, Schulz said federal law is the barrier to competition, and C-net leases paid by private providers would be heavily subsidized because of the public cost of maintaining the fiber network.

Eagan, which didn’t join the county broadband board, lost “millions” on its own C-net, Schulz said.

In the years since the board formed under a joint powers agreement, the county has gained access to other funds it can use to run fiber to areas without high-speed service, she said.

“What we don’t want, is we don’t want the city in competition with businesses to provide something that businesses provide,” Schulz said. “We’re not going to suddenly get into selling clothes, either.”

The C-net was “just an idea that didn’t get done before it was outdated,” Schulz said. The concept is outdated “both in technology and where we’re at with infrastructure,” she said.

Kealey said replacing Gustafson with Schulz wasn’t a plan hatched in advance between the three majority council members.

He suggested it would be unfair to Gustafson to represent on the board a majority council view with which he disagrees.

“You don’t have to protect me from that kind of angst,” Gustafson said. “I can deal with it. I’m a big boy.”

The council needs to revisit its procedures for making committee assignments, Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said. There’s value in keeping assignments long enough to gain expertise, she said.

The council will vote on the 2021 assignments at an upcoming meeting.

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